Drunk, Sober, High: Iconic Modern Chair Collection Kickoff
It’s a few days before Halloween, and there’s no better time to whisk the night away at State College’s many bars, parties, and clubs. You’d be a fool not to take part in the Halloweekend festivities. After all, isn’t the downtown nightlife what college is all about?
Wrong. We chose three lucky writers to willingly get drunk, high, or stay sober and attend the wildest event of the semester — University Libraries’ Iconic Modern Chair Collection Kickoff, which featured nine culturally and historically significant chairs from the late 1800s to now. The chairs were introduced to the public in a lecture Tuesday night and put on display in the Stuckeman Building’s Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library for guests to try out.
These are our three staffers’ recollections of the momentous occasion:
As soon as I walked in, I felt out of place. The general crowd was a lot older than your average college student. Were we supposed to be there? Are people going to ask me why I’m here? After freaking out for a solid five minutes, I took my seat with Sober and High.
The introductions before the actual presentation felt like they took forever. If they weren’t here to talk about chairs, I wasn’t interested in listening. I was there for a lecture about chairs! Give me the chairs! I wanted to have a good sit and I wanted it right now!
Suddenly, the introductions were over with, and there was a man on the side in a nice argyle sweater who stood up and just started spewing facts about the history of chairs. That man was named Dr. Craig Zabel, and he was the one who put all the research into the lecture about the chairs. I was a little shaken how he knew all this and was just spitting out information at his audience, but perhaps that was a way to impress me and/or get my attention. Either way, I was intrigued about how there was so much history behind the concept of chairs and their designs throughout the 20th century.
I found it hard to pay attention sometimes. It felt like the history lesson had a bit of rambling to it. That was, however, until he brought in another joke, a fun word like “swoop,” or the, in my opinion, quite creepy photo of a woman in a chair with a robot-looking mask in a Breuer armchair.
However, when I was listening, I found myself really listening for the way he talked and how passionate he was about this subject, and it was actually quite pleasing to listen to at times. Once he threw out a Spider-Man reference about the Diamond Chair by Henry Bertoia from 1952, I knew he was a real chair aficionado. A big chair boy, if you will. He managed to fill a whole hour with his knowledge about the history of chairs. Impressive!
Now, onto the main event, what I was waiting for this whole time — sitting in the chairs. I was excited to try the Diamond Chair, along with Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair from 1917. Neither disappointed, with the Diamond Chair giving me ample comfort and a good amount of reclination, and the Red Blue Chair giving me similar feelings that I had when I would sit on an Adirondack Chair, which was very nostalgic to me.
I will say, though, that the Wiggle Side Chair, probably the most visually pleasing chair of the set, was probably the most uncomfortable of them all, which Sober and High would likely disagree with. I expected something a lot more plush and maybe even bouncy, but I was met with a firm, even uncomfortable seat.
Upon entering the Stuckeman Building alongside Drunk and High, I immediately felt both underdressed and outclassed. The roughly 50 folks in attendance were either rich donors or architecture snobs with nothing better to do on a Tuesday night — both of whom wore business casual dress and acted quite classy.
The three of us sat down and anxiously waited for the night’s festivities to begin. Drunk was visibly nervous and kept anxiously sipping on his Hydroflask filled with Truly, while High browsed her phone and giggled like a schoolgirl more times than I could count.
The lecture began by a few introductions of Penn State University Libraries faculty members. Soon enough, our host for the evening, Dr. Craig Zabel, took the stage and began explaining the Iconic Modern Chair Collection Kickoff to the crowd.
Zabel, an associate professor of art history, was honored with the Penn State Alumni Association’s Teaching Fellow Award in 2016 and chose to use the funding to begin a collection of historically significant modern chairs for the college’s library. The nine chairs and stools on display that night were the first to be added to his collection.
One of the first words out of Zabel’s mouth was a horrible dad joke about chairs, which made High once again giggle uncontrollably. She chugged some apple juice to keep the laughs to a minimum as his lecture went underway.
Zabel brought the audience through a chronological history of all nine chairs and stools, beginning with Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s late-1880s classic argyle high-backed chair and wrapping up with Frank Gehry’s 1972 piece “Wiggle Side Chair” — a curvy cardboard masterpiece that was both a pleasure for the eyes and the posterior.
When Mackintosh’s piece was the topic of conversation, Zabel included photos of its use in popular culture such as the Addams Family’s 1964 television series and a Madonna music video. I nearly burst out loud laughing when High leaned toward me and very sincerely asked if we’d be sitting in the very same chair she did. She wasn’t happy to learn that our asses wouldn’t lay upon the very same seat as the Queen of Pop’s did back in the 80s.
My personal favorite part of Zabel’s lecture was near the middle when he spoke on the change in design philosophies between the traditional styles of Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright and the modern emphasis on unique pieces and non-conforming ideals. Each chair brought a unique personality along with it — making Zabel’s hour-long lecture into an informative and dare-I-say-it entertaining affair.
Once he wrapped up, guests were encouraged to head into the library for some light refreshments and a good ol’ round of chair testing. Each of the nine aforementioned chairs and stools were spread out across the room for patrons to enjoy.
Drunk and High had an absolute ball checking each one out, and I couldn’t resist doing the same myself. My favorite was indeed Gehry’s Wiggle Side Chair, which was incredibly unique and quite fun. The best part of the reception, though, was spotting a dieffenbachia plant next to one of the chairs. I have a plant of the same species in my room and have grown quite fond of the common house-plant genus over the years. Libraries are fun!
This DSH experience was one of the funniest and weirdest things I have done here during my time at Penn State. First off, I was so scared that we would be the only three people there. To my luck, we were among a crowd of probably 30 people — but we were certainly the youngest folks there.
It’s also important to note that I feel like the Stuckeman building had an overwhelming smell that resembled hot glue. I don’t particularly enjoy this smell, although it was always fun to peel hot glue bubbles off the art table in middle school. So, I had an odd sense of nostalgia walking into the building of my days in art class when I would purposefully pump out too much hot glue just so I could play with it.
Some lady began the lecture by welcoming the artists and guests and also thanking the various alumni who contributed to this collection. Then, she sort of made a desperate plea for more donations. I was tempted to raise my hand and suggest the chair my friends stole from the Findlay Commons last year and then subsequently got referrals for stealing. That rolly chair from outside Flipps is truly a piece of art.
Throughout this little introduction, I kept looking at Sober and I could not keep it together. I couldn’t stop giggling. How was I at a lecture about chairs at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday? Sober’s reassuring nods gave me confidence he felt the same way. Drunk, on the other hand, seemed like he was in a faraway land. His intense focus also made me giggle because HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY? I had to chug apple juice to stop myself from laughing.
When Craig Zabel began describing the first chair, he noted how the chairs maintain a presence even when humans are not there. I think my eyes grew about three sizes at that moment — just like how the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes — because basically Zabel was saying that these are haunted chairs. It is spooky season, after all!
At some point, I zoned out and started thinking about McDonald’s as one incredibly high person does. I was quite confused as Zabel explained how some of the chairs were used as replicas.
One style of chair was apparently used in a Madonna music video, and I thought he meant we would be sitting on the literal chair Madonna sat on. I fangirled a little bit at the idea of being cheek to cheek with an absolute queen. Unfortunately, Sober informed me this was not the case. Sober also thought this question of mine was quite funny.
Roughly 45 minutes into the lecture, I began thinking about how this was almost worse than I thought it would be. Some of the older ladies surrounding us were taking very detailed notes, and I wondered if their notes also included dreams about McDonald’s and naps like mine did.
We saw another chair that Zabel described as a wooden leg splint. Honestly, to me, it looked like a sled, and then all I was able to think about was going sledding.
We saw Diamond Chair by Harry Bertoia. When I saw this chair I had immediate flashbacks to those bungee chairs all of my friends had in middle school. All of the chairs were an absolute pain in my ass (literally), but I still fought to the death to sit in them nonetheless.
Zabel described some chairs as having cough seats. What on earth does this mean? This also reminded me I should probably buy some cough drops on my way home because I feel a cold coming on.
My favorite chair was Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Side Chair. The chair is made out of cardboard and has rolls like the ones you used to get in your stomach when you were younger and ate too much ice cream at the swimming pool. This chair inspired me to think about the TV show “The Wiggles” for the first time in about 13 years.
Afterward, we followed the crowd to the library to sit on a few of the different chairs. Sober was marveled and actually thoroughly enjoying the testing portion.
I felt like Goldilocks up in that bitch, sitting as I very well pleased on every chair. I even sat on some of them twice! Take that, chair nerds.
The Gehry’s carboard chair was easily my favorite to sit on. I sat on it three times and at one point an older lady asked what I thought. I froze. What the hell does one think about a cardboard chair that feels like a cat’s scratchboard I was almost certain would crush under me? So I blinked and said “It’s very cool” and quickly walked away to the safety of Sober and Drunk.
Overall, this was one of the weirdest two hours I have ever spent doing something. I feel like I was way more intoxicated than Drunk, but I also couldn’t bear to look at Sober or Drunk for longer than two seconds without bursting into a fit of giggles. My biggest takeaway is, how can someone possibly lecture about chairs for more than an hour?
Also, why are they so damn expensive? I tried looking up a replica of the cardboard chair and they go for thousands and thousands of dollars, so I suppose I’ll be leaving that one off my Christmas list this year.
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About the Author
As THON weekend approaches, a fundraising year like no other in THON history wraps up.
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